AN: During ch73. The Fictionist had requested some more background stuff on characters she didn't have time to spend on. So I've done a little Neville, and now here's a bit of Sirius, Remus, Hermione & Twins. Sorry, no Tom/Harry interaction in this chapter, but I hope it's enjoyable just the same.

Synopsis: The chapter begins with Harry crashing from reading the background on Horcruxes. It ends with Tom's sudden appearance at Grimmauld Place, presumably brought there to get through to Harry who has locked himself away and started to refuse meals. My chapter here is about how Tom got to into Headquarters.

.


.

Tom moved with languid grace through The Room of Hidden Things. It was one of the dwindling number of secrets he had managed to maintain safe from Harry's prying. The act of strolling through the aisles of the cathedral-like space as if he were taking a turn through a fine garden put him in mind of the anticipation he had once naively felt for the holiday excursions the orphanage rarely provided. 'This is what it should have been like,' he thought to himself, 'space and mystery and peace, not the miserable, stormy bleakness of a barren seaside, all gift-wrapped in charming desolation and tied up in a jaunty bow of bullying.' It had taken months to heal from the first trip (when he was intentionally pushed over one of the shorter cliffs by Billy Stubbs), and taken years to hone his gifts so that he could protect himself, so that the next time they did it would be the last time.

When, on their third trip to the crumbling East Anglia village, he managed to grab his would-be assailants and apparate all three of them into the cave, Tom had been filled with triumph, made only sweeter by their terrified, snivelling faces. Foolishly, he had not counted on his attackers raising an alarm when they returned to the group. He had managed just in time to enforce their silence through pain and the threat of more pain, but the seeds of suspicion—already planted by the Billy Stubbs fan club—were quickly watered with their cowering tears, and Mrs. Cole was always too drunk to take notice of the subtle march of abuse over the years.

Looking back now, he realised that this incident had been the turning point in all things. It was the first time his power had truly saved him, it was the first time he realised that the next step in defense was to prevent future attacks through offense and fear, and it was the cementing of the black mark against his name to a person of authority; the mark which was, in clichéd inevitability transferred to Dumbledore, which in turn set the foundation for everything that followed, even into Harry's time.

Staring up at the towering piles around him, Tom was reminded of that first fall. He had been hoping that perhaps learning to ride a broom would give him the sense of security that his damaged psyche required; however, though he gained sufficient proficiency in the skill (as in all his endeavours), it was not in his nature to trust his continued well-being to the potential incompetency of broom-makers, not to mention the pure practicality issues: brooms could not be shrunk, and the best broom skill in the world would be absolutely useless in the face of not actually having a broom to hand. No, the only true way to protect himself would be to discover a method for magically flying without relying on objects such as brooms or carpets or enchanted muggle vehicles. Learning to fly was one of his great dreams, and it was this which brought him now to the Room.

He had discovered the Room towards the end of his Third Year, and had spent most of fourth year slowly rummaging through the contents, gathering those items which could be potentially useful (books and magical artifacts), and those which presented immediate use (money and clothing, no doubt stolen by the thieves of previous generations, then hidden and forgotten about). Since the appearance of Harry in his time, it had been very difficult to get into the Room, as Harry increasingly relied on the Room for its primary function as the RoR. This holiday would be his first time in the Room in nearly a year. Tom wanted to check that his personal storage area was still intact, to see if his older self had managed to add anything during his Sixth and Seventh Years, to see if he could recognise any new items that had been added in the previous 50 years, and to of course continue the long and tedious process of sifting through centuries of youthful wizarding shame.

The wealth of illicit information to be had far surpassed the Restricted Section, and no doubt contained rare tomes not obtainable in Knockturn Alley, or anywhere else in the magical world outside of hidden private collections within the oldest of the pureblood ancestral homes, or perhaps the Department of Mysteries. This Room held his greatest chance for uncovering the secret of human self-propelled flight—either through long-lost spells, or through failed research notes that he could improve upon. Surely he wasn't the only one to desire this symbol of absolute and total freedom, and even poor theories could prove useful.

Tom sighed as he continued his slowly paced march through the seemingly endless space. If only this marvellous opportunity of leisurely exploration were not marred by the constant throbbing ache of angst feeding to him through the link with Harry. What had been merely an irritating itch of grief and guilt and anger and confusion had suddenly and abruptly morphed into a nauseating stew of fear and self-loathing just a few days ago. That these...emotions... had been steadily increasing in intensity only enhanced Tom's own feelings of disgust and discomfort. He had told Harry to write to him, and yet there was nothing. Apparently his directive was deserving of the same respect as his instructions to drop the silencing wards, that evidently being none at all in Harry's stubbornly independent low-self-worth view. Tom had promised to fetch the other boy personally if there were no word by Christmas, but perhaps he would need to seek him out sooner than anticipated.

Swirling dust motes sparkled like the fairies positioned throughout the Great Hall, dancing in the light which streaked through impossibly-stacked columns and aisles. The sheer volume of stashed guilt and illicit behaviour made him giddy. Tom absolutely adored the friction of society-imposed values conflicting with self-motivated desires. It was delicious, delightful... a sensuous pleasure for a restless mind keen on entertainment. As his eidetic memory catalogued the changes 50 years had wrought—that table was new, that stack over there was slightly higher—he slowly became aware of an odd... pull... coming from the vague direction of his personal collection. The familiarity of the sensation disquieted him, and abandoning his passive meanderings, Tom strode quickly and purposefully down the centre aisle, and then to the left.

His breath caught in his throat. Ravenclaw's legendary diadem... and one of his future self's Horcruxes. There could be no doubt. For a moment, Tom was swept up in admiration for Gramps, for the greatness he could achieve even without his memories of Harry. To recover such a priceless artefact lost to antiquity... he wondered if he had used it, and what gifts, what secrets it had bestowed. Of course, it could not be used in such a way, now. But that line of thought led to the next marvel—what a princely housing for a shard of his soul! No ancient reliquary could be more divine. The diary seemed so very juvenile, so tawdry by comparison.

Slowly, his environment began to filter back to him, and the passing admiration flickered, and then died. Why on earth had he hidden a horcrux here? It was just sitting there, by a large cupboard, without a single protective charm, free for any of the house elves or rule-breaking students to wander in and take it so that it could be presented with a proud flourish to the headmaster, or to the Head of Ravenclaw, or the press, or the ministry, or even to keep for their own private use, or Salazar forbid, to sell on. Between the throbbing magic radiating out of it and the history of the object itself, it was pure dumb luck that his most priceless reliquary was still here. And if there had been any lingering doubt or hope over his future counterpart's sanity, intelligence, or rationality, here was irrefutable proof that they were all indeed a lost cause. Of course he had heard of hiding things in plain sight, but this was ridiculous. Were Dumbledore to walk into this room, he would feel the presence, perhaps not as strongly as Tom had, but surely enough to investigate. Thank Salazar for the inherent laziness of most people and the unwavering lack of curiosity bred into house elves. That, and the rather hurried nature of most deposits to the room, had no doubt been the horcrux's salvation.

But what to do now? He couldn't touch the thing—he could barely be in the same aisle as it—but it would be madness to leave it here. Tom didn't trust the shifting nature of the Room, nor the castle wards to allow him to install the necessary protections and then maintain them without degradation or setting off various alarms. No, it would have to come with him somehow. Exiting the aisle, he began to quickly look around the other objects close to hand. After half an hour of sorting, he had compiled a small pile of empty boxes—some wood, some metal, some stone, and each slightly larger than the next one. He pulled a battered, dusty armchair, executed successive tergeos and scourgifys, and then sat down to individually charm each box with a different layer of protection.

Once the preparatory work was completed, it was simply a matter of using his wand to open the cabinet and levitate the diadem into the smallest box, seal it, and then place that box in the next largest, and so on. By the time the horcrux was completely nested within all of the boxes, its pull had settled into a very faint hum, barely discernable and sufficiently muffled for Tom to pick up and hold, were it not a bit too large and awkward to carry by hand. Tom still didn't much like the idea of having the horcrux in his vicinity, but acknowledged that one of the many possible plans for how his current situation would be resolved would necessitate Harry eventually possessing all of the Horcruxes. He was half-tempted to give the diadem to Harry now, but knew that even with the revelations of their last night together, their bonds were still too tenuous for Tom to trust that the Gryffindor wouldn't seek to immediately destroy the artefact. He would need to begin testing the waters on this topic very soon, though. Yet one more reason to go to Harry now, rather than wait for the other boy to contact him or just show up at Christmas.

Levitating the now-disillusioned box behind him, an equally invisible Tom made his way confidently back to the 7th floor hallway. He would place it in the Chamber for now until a more suitable hiding place could be found. Whilst he was uncomfortable with how many people now knew about the Chamber's existence and where the entrance was located, at least he could rely on the fact that it was still only accessible to him and Harry, and Harry had shown a dogged determination to avoid returning there at all possible costs. It wasn't ideal, but it was certainly a better option than leaving it unprotected in a room open to every person in the castle. Salazar, Gramps was a moron.

After it was somewhat secure, he'd send missives to Granger and Black, and then return to the Common Room. He hoped they'd managed to clean up the mess. While forcing all of the Slytherins who had remained for the holiday to face a boggart without a wand had been entertaining (and sometimes rather informative), the chaos that had ensued with furniture tumbling and breaking as students struggled to run, and the building stench of urine from the younger years had eventually caused his enjoyment to stale. He hoped the session toughened them up some though—they were woefully soft and weak. If they didn't learn some resiliency they'd never make it through the next session he had planned, and he couldn't have that now, could he?

.

...

.

Fred and George had just come down the stairs to the sitting room where Sirius, Remus, and Hermione were all engaged in a serious discussion as the rest of the house's inhabitants were seeking comfort in the kitchen. They looked up hopefully, and then slumped as Fred shook his head no, his face tight with worry. Before anything could be said though, a sharp tap brought everyone's attention to the window, where a brown and rather unremarkable owl waited on a bare and knotted branch for someone to allow it entrance. George quickly undid the latch and slid the sash up, and in moments, identical-looking magically sealed scrolls had been delivered to Hermione and Sirius. They looked at each other in confusion, and then to the other three in the room.

George closed the window and turned back to the group. "That was a Hogwarts owl."

Hermione looked at him, surprised. "How do you know?"

"Last year," Fred began

"With Bagman," George continued

"squelching on that bet,"

"we sent a lot of owls,"

"got to know some of them personally,"

"and now,"

"with the business"

"to set up"

"we're using them"

"even more."

"STOP!" Hermione yelled, in frazzled frustration. "If you're going to do the twin-speak thing, at least have the courtesy to stand next to each other and not on opposite sides of the room. I get motion sickness, you know," she huffed.

With identical devilish grins they stalked up to her and in perfect synchronisation sat on either side of the girl on the sofa. Leaning into her, each giving a stage whisper in one ear, they took turns saying,

"Is... this... better... Hermione... dear... darling... angel... of... doom?"

She responded with a growl and a quick thump on each of their heads with her as-yet unopened scroll.

"Are you two going to open them?" Remus asked trying to get things back n track, but with an indulgent grin at the carrying-on.

Sirius looked at him and shrugged before turning back to Hermione. "Do you know anyone at Hogwarts who knows both of us? Dumbledore wouldn't have bothered with owls."

Hermione bit her lip in worry and sighed at the loss of the brief flash of playful levity in the room that was so rare these days. "Honestly Sirius, I don't know anyone at all who stayed at Hogwarts. With You-Know-Who openly attacking Hogsmeade and then personally coming to Hogwarts, pretty much all of the parents want their children home, and I'll be surprised if all of them come back in the New Year. As far as I could tell, it was pretty... much... only..." she trailed off and looked at the scroll in her hand with eyes widened in surprise and a tiny bit of fear.

"What? Who do you think it is?" Sirius' face had fallen back into the morose and worried lines that had marked him since Harry's self-imposed exile.

She shoved the scroll at Fred. "Here, cast the detection spells. I know nothing dangerous should have been able to get through the wards, but you can never be too careful with him."

"With who? Hermione, talk to me, please!" Remus reached out and placed a calming hand on his friends arm.

She took a deep breath. "Tell me, Sirius—is there any chance that you know Tom Riddle?"

George hissed and Remus' hand visibly tightened on Sirius' sleeve. Fred froze for a minute in his spell-casting, then completed the charm showing the letter to be safe and handed it back to Hermione. Sirius, meanwhile, paled, and then, strangely, flushed.

Looking unaccountably embarrassed, Sirius shifted in his seat, obviously trying to ignore the grip on his arm and the fierce looks from the twins. "I... erm... I may... well, that is to say... there's a good chance that... well... IthinkImayowehimalifedebt."

Four voices exclaimed in outraged unison, "What?"

Sirius sighed and looked down at the floor, and then apparently thought better of it and looked over at his one remaining friend. "It was that failed mission, Moony—remember?"

"I remember you coming back from Hogwarts fairly shaken up."

"It was him—Voldemort. I had been captured and taken to him, and then suddenly this kid that looks like he could be Harry's brother or cousin or something just barges in as if he owns the place and starts hissing up a storm. Then he takes this piece of paper out and shakes it at Voldemort like it was the snake-faced bastard's homework and he got a bad mark, and then the kid sets it on fire! There's more hissing and then Red-eyes makes some sort of hand gesture and next thing I know, the Death Eater that had me pinned is tossing my wand to the kid, and then pushing me towards him, and then the kid grabs me and apparates me to the Hogwarts gates. Once I got my bearings, I snatched my wand back, and then he bound me and floated me behind him all the way to the Hospital Wing! Poppy heard the noise, and that's when I found out that this was Tom Riddle. The Tom Riddle! But before I could say anything, he just dropped the bind, dumped me on a bed, and told me to stay put and quiet until Harry came to see me."

Sirius looked away from Remus' concerned eyes and noticed the three gobsmacked faces on the settee. Hermione, whose own eyes had remained rounded since her realisation, quickly interjected into the silence.

"And then what?" she asked in breathless anticipation.

"And... that was it. I didn't see Riddle again. Poppy alerted Dumbledore, who of course brought his pet Death Eater with him, but with the kid's orders I kept my gob shut. Poppy told them who brought me in and the old goat and Snivellus scarpered. About ten or fifteen minutes later, Harry showed up, had a quick chat and then toddled off. Dumbledore and Snape came back, tried their little mind tricks, and eventually accepted that no matter what the particulars, I really was as clueless on the big picture as they were. Once Poppy finished clucking, I was released and came back here. End of story."

"I can't believe,"

"you owe Snake-breath,"

"a life debt."

"That's fucked up, mate."

"Language!" Hermione hissed angrily at her personal (and unwanted) syncopated stereo system.

"Well... if there is a life debt, it isn't to old snake-face in his current incarnation. I've been meaning to ask you all anyway... what exactly is Tom Riddle like? I mean, Harry doesn't seem to be too concerned, and if anyone has the right to a blood feud, it's him."

Hermione looked at her ginger bookends, both of whom were wearing uncharacteristic frowns, and sighed realising that she was best placed to answer, anyway.

"He cares about Harry." She paused as the twins snorted and Remus sucked in a deep breath. Turning to George, "No, he really does. Granted, I'm pretty sure Harry's the only person he cares about or has ever cared about..."

Fred scoffed while George looked thoughtful. "Alternate timelines are crap, Hermione, and you know it..." jerking his head at Sirius, "...personally."

She nodded. "I think... what with the weird encounters between the three of them—you know, Harry, Tom, and You-Know-Who... I think when Tom goes back something must happen to his memory." This time, Hermione ignored Remus' low growl and the sounds of synchronised derision on either side of her, and just ploughed on. "It's... I mean, it's hard to miss that he's changing Harry... but I'm not convinced that it's a bad good thing. No wait! I..." she paused and looked apologetically at Sirius and Remus before continuing, "he's never had someone in a strong position on his side. Sorry! But, well... before Tom, no one in a position of authority had ever stood up for him. I think Harry views most adults as either enemies or obstacles, but never someone who can take care of him or fight for him or make things right. Things have never been right for him, and he learned before Hogwarts that the only one who could fix things was himself, and ever since he started here..."

"Wait, you're saying that Harry sees Riddle..."

"...as a parent? Well that..."

"certainly puts all of those rumours"

"in an even creepier light."

Hermione sighed and looked over at Remus and Sirius who were both white-faced and stricken, the latter with tears running down his face. She shook her head.

"No. If anything, he probably sees these two as parents, if anyone. But Harry's never had parents, so he doesn't know that parents try to protect you and do everything they can to make the bad stuff go away. It would just never occur to him to trust them to save him. In fact, Harry probably thinks it's his job to save and protect them."

Sirius was openly crying now, shaking as an almost equally-pained Remus tried to comfort him. The three on the sofa shared a look and decided to continue on, giving the older two in the room some privacy by ignoring them.

Fred took the reins. "How does Riddle fit into this, then?"

Hermione cast a nervous look at the Mauraders and tiredly rubbed her eyes before shrugging. "Tom can make the bad stuff go away. Just look at him rescuing Sirius. And how many times has he rescued Harry this term?"

"How many times has he been the cause of Harry needing rescuing?" George rebutted.

"I don't think very many were directly caused by Tom. More like people's reactions to him," she gave him a pointed look as she thought about Harry's exile from Gryffindor.

Fred picked up where his brother had left off. "But what about you and Ronniekins? You've been through loads of stuff together, and I have it on very good authority that he never would have made it if it hadn't been for you two." He paused in thought for a moment, and then qualified, "Well, at least without you. Far as I can tell, Ronnie's just along for the ride."

She shrugged. "He serves his uses. As for everything in the past... all of those... adventures... well, we may have helped Harry figure things out and kept him company, but no matter what, he always ended up having to do the real work on his own. Besides which, he's usually the one to make the really important realisations—to, you know, put the final clues together. And then something always seems to conspire to get us separated just when he'd most need help, and we never had the authority or power to just take care of things ourselves or get someone else to take care of things."

"Did you even try? Did you ever ask for help? Did you do anything to change Harry's opinion of adults?" Remus' voice was strangled and filled with bitterness and a hint of accusation, which had Hermione bristling between pity and righteous indignation.

"Of course we did! I did! Over and over I asked him to talk to people, or I just went on my own. In first year, Professor Dumbledore was gone, and Professor McGonagall brushed us off, and we were convinced Professor Snape was the one working for You-Know-Who! I had finally convinced Harry to seek help, and it was useless, just like Harry assumed it would be. And then in second year, he and Ron went to Professor Lockhart, who then admitted to being a fraud and tried to obliviate them!"

She had worked up a full head of steam now and turned the accusation back on the accuser. "And in third year, you knew he was an animagus," she threw her hand towards Sirius, "you knew about the ways into the castle, you had the stupid map, and did you tell anyone?" She turned to Sirius and almost caught herself at his grief-stricken face, but was too far gone to stop now. "Harry didn't speak to me for months because I took my concerns about his new anonymously-gifted broom to a person in authority—and it was all for nothing!"

Remus tried to interject. "Professor Dumbledore..."

"...forced Harry to compete in the tournament last year and then offered no help!" Hermione finished for him. "Even in first year, Harry was convinced that the Professor wanted him to have these adventures—jump through these hoops. And you know what? After that stunt he pulled with Harry's family, I'm starting to believe it."

The two older men startled, and Sirius, who had calmed slightly during Hermione's rant decided to speak up.

"Wait—what about Harry's family? Are you talking about the muggles?"

Hermione and the twins looked at each other, and the bushy-haired girl gave a sad shake of her head before looking down at her lap. After a moment of silent communication, George decided to start.

"It was towards the end of dinner..."

"everyone was there"

"yeah, everyone, and then suddenly"

"the doors to the Great Hall open and there's"

"Harry's muggle family"

"right in the middle of Hogwarts"

"and everyone saw..."

Fred shuddered and George reached behind Hermione to smack him on the back of the head. "C'mon, Forge, it's your turn."

"Quite right, Gred, but I was held momentarily speechless by the horror of horse, whale, and walrus in human forms disrupting the appetites of the poor students trying to replenish their energy levels after a hard day's work."

"Well said, Forge. They were indeed a nauseating site."

"What? Muggles in Hogwarts? What happened? How did it happen? Why?" Remus' shock appeared to have shaken loose his previous moroseness.

Hermione looked up from the hands clenched together on her lap, tears threatening to spill from her eyes as she answered quietly.

"They called him a freak. His uncle treated him like his most hated possession and his cousin said that he wasn't even family. It was horrible. Everyone saw and... and I knew things were bad. Harry never really talked about it, but Ron told me about the Christmas gifts and the bars on the window..."

"What?" Sirius and Remus shrieked simultaneously in outrage, but instantly deflated at the twins' solemn nods.

"Had to bust him out the summer before his second year. Used the flying car to pull the bars off, then had to pick the locks on the bedroom door..."

"...which was no mean feat as the locks were on the outside..."

"there was a cat-flap and everything"

"kid must have the world's strongest bladder"

"or he pissed out the window"

"or he pissed out the window, but we had to break out his trunk, too"

"which was in a cupboard under the stairs"

"and all I'm saying is that the trunk"

"was on a cot"

"and there were kids' pictures propped on the shelves"

"drawn in crayons"

"one of them was of a flying motorcycle"

"and that door had external locks and a flap too."

"That's all we're saying."

"What? Ron never told me that!" Hermione had lost the battle with her tears, which were now freely flowing.

"Didn't see it, did he?" George retorted, a dark look in his eyes.

Sirius was once again crying and Remus looked positively furious. "And you told no one? How could you let him return there?"

Fred shook his head. "We told our folks everything. Even gave them the bars, but they wouldn't believe us."

"Which was bang out of order."

"Just because we wind people up"

"every once in a while"

"doesn't mean we're liars"

"or that we'd joke about something like this."

Sirius shot up from his chair with an angry snarl and began pacing. "They probably couldn't face the idea that the Great Albus Dumbledore either was lazy and lacking in omniscience, or that he wilfully sacrificed a child." They all watched warily as he continued to pace and growl to himself. Remus finally turned back to Hermione.

"So what happened with the Dursleys and how... why..."

Hermione nodded wearily. There really weren't words sufficient enough. "Well, they were awful, and no one did anything. Not even me or Ron. I was too shocked, I think, even when they tried to grab him and force him to go home with them." She had to pause at more cries of outrage from the two men. "Like I started to say, I knew things weren't right, but I didn't realise how bad they were, or maybe it just didn't seem real until I saw them—I don't really know. But the thing is—Tom wasn't shocked at all. And the way he reacted... it was like he did know how bad things were... like..." she took a breath before continuing in a whisper, "like he knew that things were even worse than what they looked like..."

Sirius froze in his pacing, and then with a moan dropped back into his chair, with his face in his hands. Remus ran his own trembling hand over his eyes and pressed on with the conversation, no matter how difficult, "What did he do? Where was Professor Dumbledore in all of this?"

George decided to field this one. "That's just it. There was this whopping great walrus of a muggle"

"at least three times the size of Harry"

"which isn't hard"

"okay, four times the size of Harry"

"and the big lug was grabbing Harry's arm and threatening him"

"calling him all sorts of names"

"obviously loathing Harry and everyone in Hogwarts"

"and Hogwarts itself"

"That was his aunt, I think."

"Yeah, I heard stories about her from Lily." At the pointed look from the twins for interrupting their rhythm, Remus shrugged, and George continued on.

"So you've got this huge beast practically attacking a student"

"in full sight of everyone"

"and no one"

"not even a professor"

"tries to stop him"

"except for Riddle"

"and then Dumbledore stands up"

"and his eyes are twinkling like it's all fun and games"

"and says that Harry has to leave school"

"in the middle of term"

"in the middle of his OWLs year and go stay with the muggles"

"who obviously hate him and might actually do him harm."

Remus' jaw had dropped open. The three on the sofa watched the internal struggle between fear, obligation and gratitude, horror, shame, and timid determination . "What happened next?"

It was Hermione who answered, her face pinched, her voice quiet. "Tom was the only one who defended Harry—who tried to protect him. Professor Dumbledore tried to stun Tom to get him out of the way," Remus hissed at this as she continued, "but Tom blocked it, and then got Harry free of his uncle and put Harry behind him, shielding him."

Sirius looked up at this. "Tom Riddle tried to protect Harry? From Dumbledore?" The three on the settee nodded, and Fred answered.

"Well, from Dumbledore and his Uncle."

" The time-travelling snakes helped, too, surprisingly."

"And for a while, it was Riddle and Dumbledore arguing over Harry."

Hermione snorted and at their surprised looks said, "He called it a custody battle." The twins grinned while Sirius and Remus exchanged dark, contemplative looks. Fred continued.

"And then it was like they were arguing over Riddle."

"In the end, Dumbledore said that Harry had to choose a side,"

"and he made it pretty clear that choosing the Light"

"meant ditching his new friends"

"who just happened to be the only ones standing up for him"

"and temporarily dropping out of school"

"to go with the bloody muggles."

Remus' eyes were wide as he asked, breathless, "What did Harry do?"

George shrugged. "Basically told Dumbledore that he could stick the whole golden-boy-saviour-weapon-thing up is"

"George!" Hermione reprimanded sharply as both Sirius and Remus sucked in sharp breaths.

George shrugged and Fred added, "Not like we blame him."

Hermione shook her head and turned to the two conflicted men. "Harry made it clear that he wasn't siding with the Dark or the Light, but just that he was done being a pawn. I don't really blame him either. But the fallout was nasty. Someone," again, she gave a pointed look to the twins, "decided to spread rumours about Harry's 'relationship' with Tom," Hermione quickly shook her head no at Sirius who seemed to be choking and spluttering on pure air, "and that he was going to be the next Dark Lord. It didn't take long before he was kicked out of Gryffindor and had to move in with the Slytherins."

"What? I wish that kid would write me, or at least use the mirrors." Sirius' shock had once again morphed into frustration and sadness.

"What mirrors?" Hermione asked, confused.

"Special two-way mirrors we used to use in detention and for pranks. They work sort of like talking on the floo and come in pairs. I gave Harry his dad's one just before you kids left for Hogwarts. I was going to wait until Christmas, but after Harry suddenly appeared in the middle of that Order meeting, and then pretended that he didn't know anything when clearly something had happened... well, I didn't want to wait. Not like it did me any good anyway," he finished grumpily.

Hermione got up from the sofa and walked to Sirius' chair where she kneeled in front of him. "It's not personal Sirius—I swear he doesn't mean to do these things—it's just like how I said: he doesn't want to risk your safety, and it would never occur to him that you feel the same way about him. Even if you told him, I'm not sure that he would really understand, or... or maybe believe it, you know, in here." She held her hand against her heart as she continued. "He was so worried about you last year. And I bet anything that whatever he's got himself worked up about right now, it has at least something to do with trying to protect us, or maybe guilt because he didn't protect us enough, or probably some combination of both."

Sirius gave a pained smile and patted the girl's shoulder in thanks. She nodded and returned to her spot between the boys. When she was once again seated, Remus bombarded her with the questions that were obviously troubling him.

"So what does the smartest witch of her age think about all of this? Have you given up on Professor Dumbledore? On the Light? On authority figures? Do you trust Tom Riddle?"

Hermione paused to sort out her response to the barrage, and then began rather primly. "Well firstly, I think it's important to note that Professor Dumbledore and the Light are not synonymous. I think someone can support the Light without supporting the Headmaster. It's the same with authority figures, though, well, I'm 16 now, and I suppose I'm at that age where I'm supposed to rebel against it." Sirius snorted and she remembered that he was her age when he ran away from home. "I still respect my teachers, and I guess I tend to assume the best of most people until they prove me otherwise."

She stopped to turn over her next thoughts a bit before giving them voice. It was a sensitive subject for a lot of students in her situation. "It's hard to say about my parents. It seems like every year I see less of them, and we grow further apart. Even with all of the prejudice against Muggleborns, I can't really see myself going back to that world. I don't even think I'll be taking the GCSEs this summer like I had originally planned."

At the blank looks surrounding her, she added tartly, "OWLs for Muggles. Honestly," she huffed, and then continued more thoughtfully. "So... maybe I'm not as tied to authority as I used to be, but I think I still probably respect it more than most kids my age, and I guess that still extends to Professor Dumbledore, at least a little bit. I really do believe that in spite of everything, he cares about Harry and that he means well and is really trying to help."

Sirius snorted again and interjected, "Road to Hell, Hermione. I've listened to you defend Snape, too."

She responded hotly, "Well, he's saved us loads of times, or at least tried to! If he really was on the other side, why didn't he just kill Harry and have done with it? Just because he's not a nice person doesn't mean he's evil." Sirius scoffed and after narrowing her eyes at him, Hermione continued. "Anyway, yes, I do believe that Professor Dumbledore has made a lot of mistakes, but I'm not so arrogant as to believe that I know more than, let alone as much as he does, or that I'm aware of all of the elements that make up the big picture."

Remus sighed. "I agree with you Hermione, and admire your objectivity, but you also have to acknowledge that there usually isn't much room for individual needs to be met within a big picture framework. Sacrifices inevitably happen."

The girl nodded, "Yes, but who am I to determine which has more validity—the greater good, or the needs of the one?"

Sirius rejoined the debate over the growling objections of the twins. "And who is Dumbledore to determine it, either? What gives him the right to define the greater good and who has to be sacrificed to achieve it?"

Hermione sank into herself, wilting under the glares pulsing at her from either side of the settee. "I don't know, Sirius, but I have to trust in him. No matter what he does, I'll still give everything I've got to support Harry and get him through, no matter what expectations there are for sacrifices made or taken. Just because I'm not going to declare Professor Dumbledore ultimately right or wrong, doesn't mean I'm not angry that Harry's been hurt—doesn't mean I won't do everything I can to keep him from getting hurt again!"

She sighed and sat a little straighter. "It's just that I have to believe that all of the suffering wasn't for nothing—that in the end it's worth it, even if it doesn't quite justify the means. We need a leader, and Professor Dumbledore's the only one at the moment who can do it. Maybe in a few years Harry would have been able to, but right now..."

George interrupted the silence that had fallen, and demanded with quiet gravity, "So you're willing to stand by the old man in spite of what he's done to Harry? In spite of... who's to say... Fred...?"

The other boy, usually the more outspoken of the two, just shook his head silently as he looked through the doorway towards the kitchen where the rest of his family kept solace together. George gathered himself and continued.

"Harry thinks that if anyone's to blame besides the Dark Bastard, its him... but he wasn't the one who ordered Dad to be somewhere in the Ministry in the middle of the night with no protection..."

"George..." Hermione couldn't decide if she wanted to rebuke or comfort, but didn't get a chance to either way as Fred immediately interjected.

"No, Hermione. It has to be said. People are risking their lives, and they don't even know what they're risking it for because Dumbledore likes his secrets and likes to think that he knows everything and doesn't need help with anything besides warm bodies. When was the last time Dad had to defend himself? Did he receive any training? If more people were like Harry and stood up to him—didn't just take his bullshite for granted, then maybe he'd be forced to give a little and let other people help with the thinking."

George nodded and added his own take. "We're of age, Hermione, and I know what you think of our pranks, but we've got loads of things like the extendable ears—things that could be used for spying or protecting people—things that could help the war effort, but they won't even let us go to meetings, let alone actually talk things through or help. Do we really need a leader who doesn't communicate and is willing to discard potential resources just because he didn't think of them homself? I'm starting to think we'd be better off with no leader at all."

Hermione looked shocked and torn at this startling piece of heresy coupled with painful logic. "But.. but..."

Remus gave a mirthless chuckle while Sirius slouched down in his chair despondently. "Well, I guess that answers the question of whether your view on Professor Dumbledore and authority figures in general had been tainted, but now I'm starting to worry that perhaps it's not tainted enough." He nodded respectfully to the twins while Hermione huffed. "It still doesn't answer what you think about Tom Riddle though. You've probably seen more than most. Can you trust him? Do you trust him?"

Hermione sighed and looked out the window. "It was like Fred said. That day in the Great Hall, Tom basically blamed the existence of his future crazy self on Professor Dumbledore, and the Professor didn't really have an answer to it. And it made me wonder if Harry's right, you know..."

"Right about what?" Sirius asked tiredly, but didn't bother bringing his eyes down from the ceiling where he appeared to be pondering the mysteries of the universe.

"Erm... he thinks that Tom became You-Know-Who because no one gave him a chance. Harry thinks he can save Tom."

"Wha..." George was obviously gobsmacked, so Fred continued.

"Even after all that stuff with the time turner and the patronus and everything?"

Hermione nodded her head resignedly, just as George managed to get out a strangled "How?"

She sighed. "I sometimes think that he believes that he can... I don't know... warp reality through wishing hard enough, or something."

The twins nodded thoughtfully at each other and Fred said, "I wouldn't be surprised if he could."

"It's the basis of most accidental magic with little kids, after all," George continued.

"Wish magic."

Hermione stopped the verbal table-tennis before it could really get going. "Yes, but twisting the very nature of time?" she scoffed.

Sirius shrugged. "He did survive a killing curse."

Remus shared a frustrated glance with Hermione, like a secret bookworm handshake. "Alright, that clears up Harry's view of Tom a little bit, but what about your view, Hermione?"

She fidgeted with one of her bushy curls. After a moment she gave it a tug and sighed. "It's been hard. It was hard having him suddenly here and so changed and having no idea what was going on. To learn what had happened was even harder, especially knowing that he had kept it a secret from us. I was so used to thinking that I knew everything that went on with him." She sighed again at the revelations of his home life which demonstrated just how wrong she had been in that assumption, and over something much more important than his trip through time. "I was so used to being the oldest, and suddenly I realised that he was now older than me, and it was hard to deal with the idea that he had grown up a lot and I hadn't."

George reached over and put a comforting hand on her back and she turned to give a grateful smile before continuing. "And that was just the beginning. At first, I was just relieved to see him so happy—happier in himself and in life than I had ever seen him before, which was really something considering all of the bad things that were going on. But then it got hard again. After he moved to the dungeons, I rarely got to spend time with him except for when he was in the hospital. It was... well, I guess the most difficult part was that I felt like he didn't need me anymore, you know? I was the brains, but from everything I can see, Tom's way smarter than I am."

Sirius scoffed. "I sincerely doubt that."

She looked at him sharply. "Don't. Don't ever underestimate Tom. Whatever else you think about Harry's plan to wish a new reality into existence, he's definitely right that for the moment, at least, Tom is completely different from You-Know-Who. He's a genius, and honestly as far as I can tell, he really hates what he became, so Harry's not delusional for the motive, either."

Remus nodded, looking somewhat relieved, while Sirius looked slightly more worried. "Does that mean you trust him then?"

"Like I said, it's hard. I've spent a lot of my time feeling like Harry doesn't need me anymore, and trying to deal with the fact that Tom protects him and makes him happier than I ever could."

"Erm... something you need to tell us Granger? Or maybe Ron?" George asked with his eyebrows raised as he made a show of withdrawing the hand that had been rubbing her back."

She blushed bright red and shoved him hard off of the couch. "I didn't it mean it that way, you git! He's like a brother to me!"

Fred laughed as he helped George off the floor and turned back to Hermione. "And how would you know that's how you feel about him? How many brothers have you had? Honestly, Granger, if Gin-Gin tried to tackle me the way you do to Harry, I'd probably be a bit freaked out," he said with a wink and shudder if quick succession.

"That's because you're Ginny's big brothers. I'm sure it would be different if she had a little brother," she sniffed haughtily.

"Ah... so that's why you've been uncomfortable dealing with Harry now being the big brother," George chimed in. "I understand completely." And he gallantly placed his arm back around her shoulders which she immediately shrugged off with a huff.

Remus gave a polite cough while Sirius grinned. "So... Tom?"

With a final glare to the red devils, she continued. "Yes, before I was so rudely interrupted... so... yes, it's been hard to not only feel replaced, but to feel like the replacement was a significant upgrade. I... I don't really have many friends, and it took a while for Ron and I to find a sort of... peace with each other without Harry or Ginny acting as buffers."

"We tried"

"but you said"

"you preferred"

"a matte finish."

"Anyway... I couldn't see objectively anymore past my own... well, jealousy, I guess, and past the image that was being projected onto Harry and his new friends. Mostly, I just couldn't see past Tom. So I gave him an ultimatum, and he agreed, but then there was the attack on Hogsmeade, and well..."

Remus prodded gently, "Yes...?"

"I guess seeing him there in the hospital wing, hearing what had happened... I think everything just sort of fell into place for me. I realised that Harry's different, but that it's not a bad thing, and that, to answer your question," she ignored the "finally" muttered in stereo on either side of her, "I accepted that while I would never trust Tom in general or with myself, that there was no one else I could better trust with Harry."

Fred and George looked at each other and then George reached over and touched her arm.

"Are you sure about this Hermione?"

She nodded. "We both know that, strange Harry magic aside, Tom really is the one who hurt your sister. But I think for now, while he's here in this time, he's one of the safest people for Harry to be with, and I think he cares enough about Harry to not hurt anyone that Harry cares, and even to protect them—us—to a certain point." She tilted her head towards Sirius as a case in point. "Physically, I really believe that Harry is perfectly safe. The only thing I worry about is emotionally. We don't have any idea why or how Tom loses his memories... or if it happens before he returns to his own time."

Sirius sat up a little straighter. "Wait a minute... you sound almost like you're worried about Harry getting his heart broken, or something. And what was all that with Harry being happy and protected?" He had begun to pale and looked on the verge of downright twitchiness.

Hermione shrugged and turned to the twins for help, but George just raised his eyebrows, and Fred made a sweeping motion with his hand indicating that she should carry on. Looking at Remus, her last resort, she was dismayed to see him shrug in helplessness and just a hint of curiosity. She sighed and pulled again at her hair.

"Let's just say that the caring is mutual."

"Hermione," Sirius growled, "are you trying to tell me that my godson's gay?"

"Would it matter if he was?" she shot back. "Would you love him any less?"

He sighed and slumped back in his chair, defeated, while he mutely shook his head, no.

"Then maybe you should tell him that sometime, not," she stopped him before he could exclaim, "that I'm saying he is gay. Honestly, right now, I don't think that concepts like hertero or homosexuality matter with these two." She ignored the gurgling sound coming from Sirius' chair, and instead focused on the twisted branch outside the window. "You'll understand if you ever see them together without a huge audience. It's like... like those old stories of chivalry with knights travelling together for years, enjoying no one's company or companionship as much as each other's."

The gurgling suddenly stopped and Sirius gave a groan, burying his head in his hands again. From between his fingers, his muffled voice asked, "You mean like the legends of Gryffindor and Slytherin, don't you?"

Hermione sadly nodded her head. "Honestly, I suspect it's worse because they're tied on so many levels of magic and their history is so complicated. All I'm saying is that most lovers and spouses would be envious of their... well, passion, if nothing else. There is a slight sexual element to their interactions, but only as part of their no-holds-barred openness with each other—like it's only there as yet another manifestation or aspect of their own individual personalities. But since neither of them have ever shown any inclination to express themselves sexually with another person (at least not as far as I've seen or heard), it's not really an issue to them. Gay people would probably consider them to be celibate (or possibly repressed) homosexual partners, and straight people might consider them to be overly-intense battle brothers or comrades in arms or just best friends."

Sirius sighed and sat up a bit, looking at his hands. "Do you think they might ever... that he... erm... you said they've never shown a desire to er..."

She shrugged. "Maybe. They're both teenage boys, even if life seems to have somewhat killed off their libidos." Fred and George shared a smirk over Hermione's blush for having to say all of this out loud. "And they're both curious and adventurous and they both—even Harry, surprisingly—seem to enjoy playing with power."

Hermione paused as Sirius stood up and began pacing. Partially because she didn't want to listen to a macho tirade, and partially because she thought he deserved to know everything, she continued as if there had been no pause at all.

"I suspect though, that it would be a pretty tough barrier for Harry to cross. He's spent his whole life being called a freak, and he hates anything that sets him apart from the crowd. If he thought that being gay would be yet another black mark against his character, or... or just another thing that made him 'abnormal', he'd probably fight it tooth and nail, even if fighting it made him unhappy. And no matter what, he'd probably avoid pursuing what he'd deem a frivolous relationship with anyone, because he'd feel guilty about having fun in the middle of a war that everyone expects him to end, and that he intends to end, no matter what he says to Professor Dumbledore to the contrary."

Also choosing to ignore Sirius' pacing, Remus asked Hermione, "So do you think he would benefit from..."

"Fleshing out their relationship?" She stopped at the snickers around her, and then blushed at her unintentional innuendo. "I didn't mean it that way. And the answer is... I don't know. Maybe. Harry's had very little physical contact in his life, and after what I saw of the Dursleys and what these two jokers told us, I suspect it may be even worse than I had thought. It would be good for him to be in a relationship where lots of casual, affectionate touching was not just accepted, but expected. He needs more... and don't you two say a word!... he needs more pleasure in his life."

Pretending that she couldn't hear the muffled snorts, Hermione continued. "On the other hand, turning his relationship with Tom from subtly to overtly sexual... well, no matter what, it doesn't have a future, does it? Unless Harry succeeds in creating an alternate reality where Tom doesn't return to his time, and yet we still all exist as we are, they'll have to end it. As it is, the best-case scenario that Harry's working with is that Tom will go back and never become Voldemort, which he acknowledges would completely alter the present if it did somehow happen. And even if we ended up exactly the same but without the wars, and even if Harry somehow kept his memory of this timeline, he'd still be looking at continuing his relationship with a guy nearly 70 years old. It's doomed, and as much as I want Harry to find that type of love and happiness, and as much as it looks right now like Tom's his one-and-only chance at a soul-mate," she paused as all of the males in the room shuddered, "I don't want him to go through the heartbreak that would inevitably occur when he had to let something like that go."

Sirius stopped his pacing and stood in front of Hermione looking lost and vaguely green. "What do I do?"

She gave him a sad smile and shrugged. "Let him know that you care about him, and that you're okay with his preferences, whatever they are. In the end, he has to make his own choices on things like this, no matter how much we want to protect him. You'll see the situation for yourself soon enough. I'm pretty sure these," she picked up the scroll that had fallen on the floor during their talk, "are from Tom, asking to come here."

"Wha..? How do you know?"

"Because when Harry's hurting, Tom finds him and makes him feel better," she said simply.

He shrugged and went back to his chair, picking up his own scroll. Briefly making eye contact, Sirius and Hermione nodded at each other, broke the seals and read.

"Well?" Remus had run out of patience and resented being the only person out of the loop as the twins were unabashedly reading over Hermione's shoulder.

"She was right. It's Tom, and he basically said that as we appear to be incapable of keeping Harry from suicidal thoughts, that it's our obligation to bring in someone who is capable." He shuddered. "Suicidal, Hermione?"

She shrugged, but looked worried. "Well... he has stopped coming for meals..." Hermione sighed, now biting her lip as well as tugging rather viciously on her hair.

Fred and George exchanged looks. "It'll be tough."

"The timing couldn't be worse."

"Ron'll flip."

"And we'll have to keep a close eye on Gin."

And then they both looked at Sirius and said in unison, "But we owe him."

Sirius sighed and turned to his friend, "How in Godric's name do we get the future Dark Lord into the secret-kept Headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix?"

Remus gave a tired grin. "Well, if the famous Weasley twins, two retired pranksters," he gave Sirius and Hermione a wink, "and the brightest witch of her generation can't figure out a way, who can?"

And with that, they got to work.

.


.

AN: So... there it is! Sorry it took so long, and I really hope you're not too disappointed. I know that I haven't used much imagery in a while, nor have I had as much sexual tension as was in my earlier chapters. Somehow, it's all sort of become its own thing. I hope you don't mind.

I've got one other background character chapter to do, this time focusing on Tom's Slytherins and their descendents (which won't involve any Tom or Harry at all in it), and then it will be all Tom & Harry dialogue for a while as we journey through the excitement and bonding at Grimmauld Place and afterwards.

On the plus side of things, I did go back and do some more tidying-up to my chapters 5 and 11-14. Please check them out and let me know if you notice or like the improvements. Chapters 15 and on (which desperately need it) will have to wait for a later time.

Back to this chapter, major thanks to The Fictionist, who lit a fire under my bum through determined supportiveness! ;-) I was really thrilled when she asked to use one of my ideas in her most recent update. I've always been pants at correspondence (all attempts at pen-pals were abysmal failures), but now I feel like I have an author-pal which is waaaaay better.

As always, please review if you can. I know that this isn't a real piece of writing—I haven't created characters or plot points... I've left all of the hard stuff to The Fictionist who does it all so much more brilliantly than I ever could. But even so, it's still a little piece of me and I care about it and I'd like to keep getting better. Your reviews help. Thanks for reading! :-)